NPR/CPI Report: Deadly Work, Little Oversight in Nation’s Grain Bins

BY Mike Melia  March 25, 2013 at 4:40 PM EDT

The 2010 rescue and recovery effort at Bin No. 9, right, spanned 13 hours. More than 200 people worked to rescue Piper and recover the bodies of Whitebread and Pacas. Photo by John W. Poole/NPR

On a scorching July day in 2010, Wyatt Whitebread showed up for work at the Haasbach LLC grain storage complex in Mount Carroll, Ill. It was his first job. He had been working in the grain bins for just two weeks. He had his pick and shovel and climbed the four stories to the top of the bin, half-filled with 250,000 bushels of wet corn. Whitebread was just 14 years old when he was killed that day, sucked under the suffocating weight of grain that gave way below his feet.

Whitebread’s story is just one of many highlighted in an investigative series, “Buried in Grain,” by NPR, the Center for Public Integrity, Harvest Public Media and the Kansas City Star. The series highlights the dangerous working conditions at the country’s grain storage facilities, how government agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration oversee the industry and the penalties for companies that violate workplace safety laws.

Howard Berkes of NPR and Jim Morris of CPI spent six months reviewing government documents, interviewing workers, government officials, victims’ families, company owners and legal and agriculture industry experts who have studied grain bin working conditions.

Berkes said he first noticed oversight from government regulators while reporting on the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in 2010. “I noticed how MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration) routinely cut fines even when employers were willful and egregious and coal miners died,” Berkes told PBS NewsHour.

A year later, after a report of a grain elevator explosion in Kansas that killed six, and a report by Purdue University that sited record entrapments and suffocation deaths in grain, Berkes teamed with Morris to begin a reporting project on death tolls from grain bin accidents. “We talked to Ron Hayes, whose son died in a grain bin in Florida in 1993,” Berkes said. “He told us about his ongoing activism, especially aimed at grain deaths. He met with OSHA after that record year and was astonished when OSHA officials asked him what more they could do. Hayes told us that fines were routinely slashed and that prosecutions were rare even in the most egregious cases. We found that to be true and indicative of all worker fatalities.”

NPR and CPI found that grain incidents brought few criminal prosecutions. “An examination of OHSA grain engulfment data and the agency’s criminal referral records shows at least 19 fatal and nonfatal grain incidents since 2001 with willful citations, the kind that trigger consideration of federal charges. Eight were referred to federal prosecutors. Three resulted in charges, and one is still under review,” wrote Berkes and Morris.

Grain operations manager Austin Clubb, wearing a body harness for safety, gazes into the “cone” inside a massive grain bin at Amana Farms in Homestead, Iowa. Cones, which can trap workers, form in the flowing grain as it’s drained from bins. Photo by John W. Poole/NPR

“We do everything we can within the current regulatory framework,” OSHA administrator David Michaels told Berkes and Morris. “We issue large fines. We go after companies we think are scofflaws. We do repeat visits to the worst companies.”

Whitebread wasn’t the only victim to lose his life in Bin No. 9 that day in July. It was 19-year-old Alex Pacas’ second day at the facility. Will Piper, 20, who was also working that day, remembers what happened. According to Piper and a deposition from a Labor Department investigation, while the boys were working, a second drain hole was opened at the bottom of the bin.

“It created a quicksand effect, and Wyatt ended up getting caught up in it and started screaming for help,” Piper told Berkes and Morris. “Me and Alex went in after him, and we each grabbed one side of him under his armpits and started dragging him out and got pretty close to the edge of the quicksand, and then we started sinking in with him.”

It took hours for the rescuers to get the boys out and Piper was the only one to survive. You can find the entire story at NPR and CPI. You can also explore the complete series with links to the original documents related to the cases, as well as an interactive page where you can learn more about each of the 180 deaths investigated by OSHA in 34 states in grain bins since 1984. The Kansas City Star also reports on how federal prosecutors are considering criminal charges related to a grain elevator explosion from 2011 that killed six workers.

On Tuesday, you can hear Berkes’ first report in the series on “All Things Considered.” Also on Tuesday, Berkes will be on PBS NewsHour describing what this series has uncovered.